Twenty-eight workers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena formally objected when President George W. Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive #12 in 2004—subjecting them and their co-workers to extensive personal background checks—and took their fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Five of them continued to inform their co-workers, and complain, about what they considered to be a looming, unwarranted invasion of privacy. That drew disciplinary action in 2011 from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which operates JPL for NASA.
The five appealed the punishment and last week a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge ruled (pdf) that JPL had engaged in unfair labor practices and ordered it to remove letters of reprimand it had placed in their files.
Caltech insisted that it took the action because the employees were breaking its spam rules by using work computers for non-work-related communications. The offense was deemed serious enough to warrant the highest level of sanction—the letters of reprimand.
JPL Director for Engineering and Science Leslie Livesay reportedly testified at the trial that the emails were serious violations of JPL rules because they failed to explicitly state that the opinions expressed within them were not the official positions of JPL. Caltech Human Resources Director Cozette Hart called it a lobbying effort against NASA.
The five employees called it a discussion about workplace conditions and argued that employees regularly exchanged emails about innocuous non-work-related subjects, like Girl Scout cookies. The only difference, they said, was the political nature of their conversation.
NLRB Administrative Law Judge William G. Kocol agreed with them that their communications were protected speech and ordered that the letters be removed from the files. Three of the five workers are no longer at JPL.